Back in 1938 when journalist Mario Sanfilippo was a little boy, the nuns preparing him and his classmates for their first communion would warn against the dangers and temptations of the world.

Among them, he recalled in a recent essay for the Rome daily, Ii Messaggero, was that of the Masons, who he was told were sinister figures who when receiving communion would not swallow the host and would later spit it out and force unwary children to trample it into the dust.

Later, Sanfilippo said, the verses of a popular children's magazine portrayed King George of England and Winston Churchill as part of a Jewish-Masonic-Bolshevik plot to destroy Italy and with it the Western civilization. Still later, in 1943, the pamphlets published by his parish club taught him that plots by Jews and Masons had been responsible for both the French and Russian revolutions.

Conflicting information, he says, came from a grizzled Socialist worker who told him that although the Masons were bourgeois many were courageous antifascists. Made curious by the passions surrounding this ancient society, he consulted Italy's Catholic Encyclopedia and read something about the Freemasons' background, their history and the substantial role they have at least indirectly played in Italian History.

Last week, the government of Premier Arnaldo Forlani collapsed in the midst of a sandal involving accusations of illegal and subversive activity by a secret Masonic lodge to which key government, military and establisment figures allegedly belonged.

In the light of what has happened in Italy in recent weeks it is difficult to remember that in the past, as historian Aldo A. Molas recently pointed out in the newspaper ILL Sole-24 Ore, "Freemasonry in Italy became a meeting point for those intellectual groups determined to modernize the state and to promote new forms of social organization."

Some of Italy's best-known historical figures were Masons. Giuseppe Garibaldi, the father of Italian independence, was a grandmason of the Grande Oriente, Italian Masonry's umbrella organization, as was Piedmontese statesman Camillo Cavour. Poet Giosue Carducci, a star in Italy's 19th century literary firmament, was a Mason and so were Rome's most famous mayor, Ernesto Nathan, and King Victor Emanuel II.

With such a gallery of heroes as past members, how is it that today publication of a list of alleged members of a Masonic lodge could provoke such tremors? In part, the answer lies with the origins of the motifs that Sanfilippo says were a constant refrain in his childhood; in part of the nature of the P2, the lodge in question, and in part with a general Italian tendency to demonize that which is both little understood and considered an emantion of power.

For several reasons -- Masonry's secret nature, its intellectual role in the revolutionary movements in 18th century Europe, and a tendency among some Masons toward atheism and anticlericalism -- there was never any love lost between the Masons and the Roman Catholic Church.

Five years after the foundation of Italy's first lodge, in 1732, the Vatican struck back with an excommunication edict by Pope Clement XII saying that "enrollment in such a society risks the mark of infamy, of evil and of corruption." A century and a half later, Pope Leo XIII reiterated this point of view in an encyclical that labled Freemasonry as the "synagogue of Satan."

Then in 1895 when Italian Premier Giovanni Giolitti attacked a rival by releasing allegedly incriminating documents, the focus was put on Grandmason Adriano Lemmi, accused of using his control of the country's vital nerve centers -- politicians, financiers, army officers, magistrates -- to work his will on a suffering Italy.

Things did not get much better for the Freemasons under Benito Mussolini.

As Socialist Party leader in 1914 the future dictator expelled all Freemasons from the party. In power in 1925 he forcibly dissolved the order. f

Since World War II, the Italian Masons have reestablished their order and have made an effort to conform to the Italian constitution's prohibition of secret associations.

Incorporation of each new branch -- there are over 500 with 20,000 members -- is registered with the local tribunal, as are names of its presiding officers. Membership archives are carefully kept and taxes paid.

In recent years relations with even the Roman Catholic Church have improved. In response to a blanket ban of Masonry by the German bishops' conference, the official Vatican paper, Osservatore Romano, on March 2, repeated the substance of a 1974 Vatican letter that said that only those people enrolled in organizations that actively conspire against the church would be excommunicated.

Over the last few days, however, Italian Freemasonry has again come under attack, largely by the left-wing press and largely because of the seemingly suspicious activities of the P2 (for Propagnda Two) lodge, with unnamed powerful members, that since 1975 has been under the direction of Licinio Gelli. Gelli was named leader of the P2 lodge by Lino Salvini, grandmaster of the Grande Oriente from 1970 to 1978.

The devicer of a "propaganda lodge" has clear roots in Italian Masonic history. Since 1875 Italians unable for their own reasons to carry out Masonic activity have been able to enroll in a "lodge of Masonic propaganda," that is to register secretly their desire to be Masons.

Adriano Lemmi, who became grandmaster in 1885, began the practice of enrolling influential Italians in this special list.

It is unclear to what degree the legends of perniciousness that have surrounded it in recent years simply mirror ancient fears of the Masons as a group of powerful conspirators and to what extent they reflect suspicions about Gelli.

Many Masons contended that under Gelli's leadership the P2 lodge became, in the words of one of them, a "cancerous growth on the body of Italian Freemasonry." Current Grandmaster Elio Battelli says the P2 lodge was "suspended" in 1976 because of the surrounding "climate of scandal." But procedures to expel Gelli have not been completed.